Stats That Matter: The Tactical Evolution of NRL

Some things in Rugby League feel like they never change.

Referees are always rubbish whether or not there are one or two of them out there; the Storm are still towards the top of the ladder and get away with murder in the ruck; the same teams keep winning despite 15 of the 16 playing Finals football over the last eight seasons.

But when you step back and look at how things once were, you notice the stark differences in how the game is played.

You're no longer going to see a centre float over to the other side of the field quite like Mal Meninga would in his day; players now keep to their spots on the field and rarely move.

You're certainly not going to see a kicking duel in 2020. Despite those very real passages of play (Yes, young fella, they did happen), the game flowed.

Fans of a certain age call those "the good old days."

Their children see a game riddled with errors and not a single correct play-the-ball in 80 minutes.

Players are stronger and faster than ever, but they've been put in a box and asked to play defined roles more than before - especially in attack.

How teams play in attack evolves year-on-year.

Despite not being the finely tuned athletes we see today, players threw their bodies into everything throughout the '90s and early 2000s.

A look at the nicknames gives a fair idea of how teams used to approach the game with the ball in hand.

Glenn 'the brick with eyes' Lazerus, Paul 'the chief' Harragon, David 'cement' Gillespie, Trevor 'the axe' Gillmeister and Gorden 'the raging bull' Tallis all played with a total disregard for their bodies. Crashing and bashing their way up the field, genuine 'little men' worked their magic in attack off the back of them.

Long and lateral passes, wrap-arounds, dump-offs and chip-kicks dominated the style of play until things started to change around the mid-2000s.

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While winning the middle and excelling in the yardage game has always correlated to success, what teams do on the back of it looks a lot different now than it did 20 years ago.

"Shape" is used to describe a team's structure and has been developing within the game for over a decade. While most teams shape-up similarly across the game, how they play within the shape of their attack differs.

The current Cowboys, for example, play to positions on the field and apply a block-heavy style to their attack inside the opposition 20-metre line. They will attack one side of the field through decoy runners and back-door passes, and if that doesn't work, try down the other. It's a ploy that can work with one of the best halves in the history of the game acting as the ball-player and looking for holes in the defence, but it's proven to be a failure through Johnathan Thurston's decline and eventual retirement.


Meanwhile, the Roosters might not look too dissimilar when setting up their shape, but they react to what is in front of them. Geniuses down the short side and prepared to throw the ball around more than most, they look to create opportunities down both sides to open up the opposition. Support off the ball, options behind ball-runners and active backrowers pushing up results in a high-error/low-completion attack that scored 25.4 points per game in 2020 (1st).

Trent Robinson summed up the evolution of attack a few years ago:

"You've got to play some footy in 2017. If you're not playing footy, you are not going to the races".

The Chooks threw away the tired cliches of "getting to the kick" and completing sets for the sake of it. Instead, they look to create points from all over the field like "the good old days". Since then, the Roosters have scored the second-most points (22.7 per game) while making the most errors (11.3) and playing with the third-worst completion rate (75.3%).

While the Roosters have adjusted their attack over the years to combine some of the old and some of the new, many others haven't. Tactical penalties are now prevalent in the defensive side of the game and have proven successful in keeping one-dimensional attacking structures from crossing the line.

The number of tries scored in a season (including finals) have either dropped or remained the same in five of the last six seasons. Points scored throughout the regular season have been trending much of the same way.

As the wrestle in the ruck has increased and slowed down the play-the-ball, teams have become more comfortable in giving their defence a chance to set and defend the line. They're therefore willing to concede a penalty to reset their line rather than allowing a quick play-the-ball and being forced to scramble.

It's one of the more frustrating aspects of the game compared to 20 years ago and may soon result in a rule change.

We've seen rule changes contribute to the evolution of the game throughout its history (six tackles introduced in 1971, five metres pushed out to ten in 1993) with adjustments to the bench and corner post having a significant impact in recent years.

Once unlimited, coaches had 12 interchanges to work with from 2001, 10 from 2008 and now the eight available changes introduced in 2016.

To keep up in the middle, lock forwards are now almost strictly middle players as opposed to the do-it-all types of years gone by. They're big ball-carriers that offer a little more footwork and ball-playing than the standard prop.

Not being able to rotate forwards in and out of the game has also brought a larger focus to the wing position. Now given a much larger role throughout the early tackles to a set, wingers are some of the biggest metre-eaters in the competition.

Add the change to the corner post no longer being considered touch-in-goal in 2010, and wingers have become increasingly important over the last decade. Some of the tries we've seen scored in the corner were never possible before 2010.

As the game evolves, so do the players and the rules.

The 17 men and women running around in professional rugby league are bigger, stronger and faster than they've ever been. Meanwhile, just this season, the NRL has made changes to where scrums take place, introduced the 20/40 kick(the 40/20 came in 1997), and implemented the much-maligned captain's challenge.

It's not always obvious, but the game changes in front of us every year.

Officials, coaches and players are always finding new ways to improve the game or gain an advantage, and with that, comes the constant evolution of rugby league.

Over the next few weeks, while the competition is suspended, we're going to look into where teams are winning games, how they're doing it, and what it all might look like in the future.

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Jason Oliver

As far as Jason is concerned, there is no better time of year than March through June. An overlap of the NBA and NRL seasons offer up daily opportunities to find an edge and fund the ever-increasing number of sports streaming services he subscribes to. If there's an underdog worth taking in either code, he'll be on it.

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